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A CurtainUp London Review
The Woman in White

You can get away with anything
It all comes down to style
You can't get away with anything
If you can't get away.

--- Count Fosco
The Woman in White
Angela Christian as Anne Catherick
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
The Woman in White is Lloyd-Webber's attempt to recapture the success of his hit musical The Phantom of the Opera, still running in London's West End two decades on. With many of the same ingredients as Phantomand based on another nineteenth century Gothic tale of romance and villainy, Wilkie Collins' novel is a ripping good tale. What defined the successful London grown musicals of the nineteen eighties was the spectacular staging, falling chandeliers, helicopters onstage, the barricades of Paris in 1815. Add Michael Crawford, the creator of the Phantom role and you might think Lloyd-Webber has found the recipé for a repeat of his success. But in 2004 we have moved on.

The first thing that you notice is the setting, not a set but a series of computer generated images recalling a great Victorian pile, a mansion set in generous grounds, the quintessential, English house and estate in the Lake District. These images fill the stage, a curved rotating screen seamlessly provides the means of one image segueing into another. The technology from William Dudley, who has already established his credentials with sets for the National Theatre and the award winning Hitchcock Blondeat the Royal Court, is impressive. But I have reservations. These graphics do not for me suspend disbelief. I am always aware that what I am watching is a picture and not the real thing. Yes, it looks like smog filled Victorian London, but you can't smell the acrid smoke, nor experience the drudgery of life in a city whose buildings are black with grime the way you can with an authentic theatrical set. The "Wow!" factor is missing. However, the succession of graphics means that there is always something different to watch so that if the music becomes monotonous at least the background is constantly changing. The steam trains thunder through the tunnel and into the audience and we are allowed into the Victorian lunatic asylum, we see the wedding in the church and teeter along the parapet of Glyde's Blackwater House with Marian Halcombe (Maria Friedman).

Musically Lloyd-Webber has often been criticised for being derivative. In The Woman in White he has taken a leaf out of Boublil and Schonburg's score for Les Misérables.. What is missing are the really good tunes. There is a love song, "I Believe My Heart", a strong duet which might be memorable after it has been heard a few times but which didn't linger on the night I attended. The other show stoppers are from Michael Crawford, whose Count Fosco character delivers his comic Gilbert and Sullivan type songs, "A Gift For Living Well" and "You Can Get Away With Anything". David Zippel's lyrics plod away at seven syllables to the line and only rarely strike a note of ingenuity.

Charlotte Jones has taken some liberties with the plot but this may be inevitable when novels are turned into musicals. For those who don't know Wilkie Collins' novel here is a summary of the plot without its denouement: Walter Hartright (Martin Crewes) takes a position as a drawing master to two women, nieces to Mr Fairlie (Edward Petherbridge) half sisters, Laura Fairlie (Jill Paice) and Marian Halcombe (Maria Friedman). On his way to their house, Walter meets a mysterious young woman dressed in white, Anne Catherick (Angela Christian), who talks of a secret. Later Anne tells Walter that Sir Percival Glyde (Oliver Darley) is an evil man. Walter and Laura, who looks remarkably like Anne Catherick, are attracted to each other but we are told that Laura is engaged to be married to the handsome and personable Glyde. Glyde's companion is the sinister doctor of medicine, Count Fosco (Michael Crawford). Laura and Glyde are married and Marian Halcombe sees that her sister is dreadfully unhappy. Anne Catherick is locked up in an insane asylum. Anne and Laura's fates seem entwined.

Trevor Nunn directs and he is as sound as ever, if not innovative. The choreography is rather limited to country type clog dancing from the Cumberland country locals with corn dollies and cheerful if criminal Cockneys in London. The principals are wonderful, really good singers and convincing in their role. Oliver Darley's Glyde is volatile and cruel, Angela Christian's Laura is sweet and innocent, Martin Crewes' Walter is sincere, handsome and loyal. Outstanding are Maria Friedman as the worthy Marian and Michael Crawford in a curious foam rubber double chin and black curly flat top wig as the flamboyant, rat fancier Fosco. When these two are onstage, the one leching after the other, the full comic possibilities are realised although this scene is of Charlotte Jones' making rather than the Wilkie Collins' original novel.

The Woman in White may not become the cash cow that Lloyd-Webber might have hoped for but his still loyal following should ensure she endures in the West End for a few years, but despite the first night audience accolades, I doubt there will be much of a market for the cd.

Music by Andrew Lloyd-Webber
Book by Charlotte Jones, based on Wilkie Collins novel
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Starring: Maria Friedman, Michael Crawford
With: Martin Crewes, Angela Christian, Edward Petherbridge, Jill Paice, Oliver Darley, Vincent Pirillo, Nicky Adams, Eion Cannon, Gregory Clarke, Elinor Collett, Christopher Connah, Adrian Der Gregorian, Susie Fenwick, Helen George, Mark Goldthorpe, John Griffiths, Andrew Keelan, Paul Kemble, Joanna Kirkland, Jo Napthine, Yvette Robinson, James Spilling, Steve Varnom, Sophie Catherside, Leah-Verity White, Sydney White
Production and Video Design: William Dudley
Lighting Design: Paul Pyant
Movement Director: Wayne McGregor
Orchestrations: David Cullen
Orchestrations Supervisor: Andrew Lloyd-Webber
Sound Design: Mick Potter
Music Supervisor: Simon Lee
Running time: Two hours forty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to March 5th 2005
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th September 2004 performance at the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (Tube/Rail: Leicester Square)
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • I Hope You'll Like It Here
  • Perspective
  • Trying Not to Notice
  • I Believe My Heart
  • Lammastide
  • A Gift For Living Well
  • The Holly and The Ivy
  • All For Laura
Act Two
  • If I Could Only Dream This World Away
  • The Nightmare
  • Evermore Without You
  • Lost Souls
  • If Not For Me For Her
  • You Can Get Away With Anything
  • The Seduction
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